Being a person of colour is a career-limiting move

By Ash Salardini

April 13, 2022

Twenty-one percent of the Australian population are people of colour, yet make up only 2.7% of leaders in corporate, political and public sector institutions. (Fractal Pictures/Adobe)

Being a person of colour is a career-limiting move and I would strongly advise against it. Whether for preselection as a political candidate, board and executive appointments, and particularly progression within the public sector, being a person of colour ensures that the odds are well and truly stacked against you. The biggest problem is that as a society we do not see the lack of workplace cultural diversity as a problem worth addressing.

A 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission report found that people of colour (21% of Australia’s population) accounted for 2.7% of leadership roles within corporate and public sector institutions.  This is almost a ten-fold underrepresentation.  

The public sector, pilloried for its ‘wokeness’, fared worse than the private sector. Out of 103 leadership positions across state and federal government departments, one position was held by a person of colour.

Sadly, this diversity problem is of such low importance that it does not even warrant the regular collection of data. As an example, the latest State of the Service Report by the Australian Public Service Commission fails to provide a breakdown of employment by seniority for people of ‘culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds’, despite doing so for other categories of diversity including gender and disability. 

Even in portfolios where cultural and linguistic diversity should be an overwhelming advantage, such as trade and foreign affairs, leadership roles are conspicuous by a complete lack of representation from people of colour.

Public debates on workplace diversity seems to have narrowed to gender diversity, and particularly those issues that most impact upper middle-class women of Anglo European backgrounds – affording them the same unequal opportunities to senior management and political appointments as men of similar backgrounds. Issues of cultural and linguistic diversity is very much the poor cousin in the diversity debate.

To be clear, women face workplace disadvantage. In 2019-2020, women made up 18.3% of CEOs according to the Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency. This is almost a threefold underrepresentation of women in leadership position as compared to what demographics would suggest the level should be. This gap must be addressed.

My mother enjoyed the double-whammy career benefits of being a person of colour and a woman, struggling for years to land professional employment. My father suggested that the problem was her unusual name – ‘Fereshteh”’- and her CV mentioning the University of Tehran. He tactfully suggested that some employers may have a subconscious bias towards Middle Eastern people – ‘No one wants to work with a hijab-wearing Arab!’

Subsequent job applications were submitted with an anglicised name, ‘Sarah’, and a headshot photo providing evidence that my mother does not wear a hijab.  Within six months my mother had her first professional job in Australia.

A 2009 Australian National University research paper confirmed my mother’s lived experience. The research found that Chinese applicants were forced to submit 68% more applications and Middle Eastern applicants 64% to get an interview when compared to identical Anglo-Saxon job seekers.

Women of colour have well and truly been left behind. Research by a diversity and inclusion consultancy MindTribes notes that the ethnic gender pay gap is consistently between 33-36%, more than double the broader gender pay gap of 14%.

The public sector should be leading by example on the issue of cultural diversity, not being the laggard. It should have a truly expansive cultural diversity agenda beyond the provision of leadership roles, and deal with the issues that prevent people of colour from thriving in the public sector.

My hope is that we make progress on this matter so by the time my children join the workforce, being a person of colour doesn’t automatically make them twenty times less likely to land a leadership position as compared to a man of Anglo European background.


Sixty percent of women of colour in Australia experience workplace discrimination, survey finds

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